Charles Norman Shaffer
June 8, 1932 - March 15, 2015
The Montgomery County Bar and indeed the legal profession lost one of its finest practitioners and most colorful personalities on March 15, 2015 at the age of 82. Born on June 8, 1932 in Westchester County, New York; son of a lawyer-politician and homemaker; attended Fordham College, allegedly studied to be a Jesuit Priest before re-directing his efforts to “better” use; attended Fordham Law School (the only law school his father would pay for); admitted to the bar on March 19, 1958 and soon hired as Assistant United States Attorney in the Southern District of New York when he was tapped (personally) by then Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy to come to Washington D.C. to join his criminal (and tax) division.
Mr. Shaffer was an avid equestrian and foxhunter, and a longtime member of several local hunt clubs, including Irving Abb’s “unapproved” Big Meadow Hounds. Mr. Shaffer continued to hunt, and to take weekly lessons (including jumping fences) from Master Fox Huntsman and close friend Robert Taylor up until a month before his death. Never bashful, Mr. Shaffer ran a regular ad in a local foxhunting newsletter: “Lawyer – Cheap – Will Do My Best”.
Mr. Shaffer’s home office and library, elegant and largely paperless, were “decorated” with framed testimonial letters from such notables as Robert F. Kennedy, Senator Sam Ervin Jr. and J. Edgar Hoover (but not Richard Nixon), tufted furniture, and leather-bound volumes. These are the trappings of a substantial man, a man of moment.
Most of us know of at least five cases/matters he handled with unmatched skill and finesse: Watergate, where he represented White House Counsel and prime whistleblower John Dean; the single conviction (after four attempts) of Teamster boss Jimmy Hoffa (never to be seen again); the “Boss of Bosses” of the Chicago mafia, a nine-month trial with multiple co-defendants and their showboating lawyers; the Warren Commission’s report on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy; and the physician/member of Congressional Country Club who slew the protected Canadian Goose.
Some notable footnotes to these proceedings: Dean/Watergate: Dean had cogent reasons for picking Shaffer (then age 40) rather than the “big-name” D.C. lawyers; his total fee paid ultimately fell below minimum wage; his request for immunity from the U. S. Attorney was rebuffed, quickly to be granted instead by the Watergate Congressional Committee; his (and Dean’s) unmitigated joy when hearing of the disclosure that Nixon had secretly taped the very conversations Dean had testified to (Nixon resigned 15 days after the Supreme Court ordered the tapes released); Watergate prosecutor Richard Ben-Veniste’s comments that (1) Dean was “the best-prepared witness [he had] ever seen in 40-plus years of practicing law”; and (2) Shaffer had “a lot to do with the Nixon resignation.” Dean’s Blind Ambition contains a remarkably unchanged photograph of Charlie with the caption: “the best damn lawyer money can buy.”
The Hoffa matter began with Bobby Kennedy’s call to Shaffer: after he identified himself as RFK, Charlie responded, “and I’m Napoleon” and hung up on him. In the process of obtaining Hoffa’s conviction, Charlie later learned that it was Hoffa who had recommended that the Chicago mafia boss solicit Charlie (then in private practice) to represent him.
The mafia-boss case was similarly intriguing. Charlie’s marching orders from the ancient mobster were unique, but in retrospect understandable: there would be no plea of guilty to anything, and under no circumstance was Charlie to obtain an acquittal. When the presiding judge 9 months later sentenced the mafioso to a hefty term of imprisonment, Charlie protested that he was 86 years old: the judge rejoined that, “He’ll just have to do the best he can!”
Attorney General, Bobby Kennedy came to have sufficient trust in Charlie’s honesty and integrity that he named him to be his personal representative on the Warren Commission to report to him directly who was really behind the assassination of his brother. While Shaffer generally endorsed the Warren Commission’s Report until very recently, in September 2014, he opined to the Washington Post (on the 50th anniversary of the Warren Report) that later events had left him with significant question as to whether the mafia might have been involved in the assassination.
Shaffer’s more recent defense of the member of Congressional Country Club who allegedly violated an international treaty by slaying a protected Canadian Goose with his putter on the course was typical Charlie: He allegedly brought $10,000 in cash to the club’s “trial”, challenging any board member to collect that bounty if he could go out immediately and find and kill a Canadian goose on the course with a putter. It is said that the accused member suffered a suspension of his golfing privileges from November until the following March!
Michael Grady, former associate of Charlie’s, contributed the following description of the experience of working with Charlie:
I came out of law school in the 1980’s and worked for Charlie for almost six years. There was no mentor like Charlie. There was no such thing as being “too prepared” for court – and you had to make sure he was prepared, too. Charlie was demanding, but if you did well, he would make a point of telling the judge or client that you had come up with the argument or point that won the day. He had an ego, but he was gracious about giving credit where credit was due. He was irascible and didn’t suffer fools. He insisted on precise thinking. After two weeks, you knew the difference between res judica; collateral estoppel or similar terms. Charlie always said the mark of a good lawyer was that he (she) understands the terms he uses. Clients might not know the difference, but other lawyers do. It was a lesson worth learning.
What I will never forget about Charlie is that, win or lose, it was always honesty first with him. Mistakes happen. He would be the calmest man in the room if you made a mistake – as long as you told him about it before the judge or the opponent or the client told him. “What could you possibly mess up that I couldn’t fix?” he would say. He would tell the judge or the client first if he’s made an error. Cover-ups were something he didn’t tolerate, as Mr. Nixon would readily attest. Working with Charlie was an education no law school could provide.
Mr. Shaffer’s reception following his funeral mass was rife with many tales of how Charlie had hornswoggled, fleeced or generally manhandled them or others in achieving uniformly superb results. He had a unique way of somehow developing a private rapport with his trial judge (during trial, of course) which left his opponents wondering if their presence, much less their case, was still pertinent. At the trial’s end, Charlie could be expected to have left a silver bullet on his trial table and his opponent asking: “Who was that masked man?”
An immaculate dresser, Charlie had the trim figure and handsome looks of a Jimmy Stewart, a booming, gravelly voice, flashing smile and the wily, irrepressible wit to captivate any audience. Although it was never obvious, Charlie knew more about any case and all the persona involved than anyone in the courtroom. His tactics were invariably “spot-on”, and his common-sense arguments were nothing less than lethal. He was at once flamboyant, irreverent, dramatic, impudent and courtly: but always thoroughly prepared and carefully measured.
One of his last comments on his practice of law said it all: “Still at it and having fun.”
Chuck Rand/Jim Demma/Michael Grady